“First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit. Please let us know what you think.  Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

• Thursday, May 18, 2006 | 11:25 a.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Hayden to  lead CIA “by example”
Gen. Michael Hayden, President Bush's nominee to replace outgoing CIA director Porter Goss, gave his opening remarks before the Senate Intelligence Committee this morning during which he outlined the "broad vision" he would implement at the agency if confirmed. Complaining that the CIA has become the "football in American political discourse," Hayden defended the agency against recent criticism for alleged intelligence "failures" and told committee members that the agency has also had many "successes."

Hayden also stated that he would work to reform the agency and restore the public's faith in it. Specifically, he said that if confirmed, that he will lead by example, work to strengthen relationships with foreign partners, push for more information sharing between other intelligence agencies and federal, state and local governments, and update the agency's technological infrastructure.

Hayden, who has faced of roar of bipartisan criticism for his tenure at the NSA, during which he oversaw that agency's controversial domestic wiretapping program, is expected to face tough questioning regarding his role in that program when the hearing resumes later this afternoon. Hayden also assured members that under his helm, the CIA would be truthful with the Bush Administration on intelligence matters.

• Thursday, May 18, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First Glance
President Bush tours the US-Mexico border near Yuma, AZ, gets briefed by Border Patrol officials, and makes remarks on his vision for immigration reform.  Per White House press secretary Tony Snow, Bush's remarks will largely be a recap of his Monday night address.  Snow pointed out that Arizona is a state where the (Democratic) governor has used the National Guard to enforce border security; Gov. Janet Napolitano will accompany Bush today, as will the head of the US Border Patrol and assorted members of Congress who have assorted views on Bush's approach.  After these events, Bush will do one-on-one interviews with network correspondents.

Karl Rove's visit to the House side of the Hill yesterday doesn't appear to have won over any GOP minds there, per NBC's Mike Viqueira , who canvassed several members after they left the closed-door gathering.  Rove stayed for only 10-12 minutes -- just enough time to essentially rehash Bush's Monday speech and answer a few questions, according to 10 or so members who were present.  Among those who weren't encouraged -- Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, who will be on Air Force One with Bush when he travels to Arizona today.  Also along for the ride will be fellow Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who supports Bush's plan.  Rove told members that he will make calls to help answer any questions they might have, Viq reports.

A Senate GOP leadership aide says Bush's Monday speech "has not changed any minds here but it has given the overall issue some staying power, at least for a few days."  The leadership hopes to have the issue wrapped up by mid-week next week, giving them a few days to attend to other business before the Memorial Day recess.

CIA director nominee Gen. Michael Hayden gets his confirmation hearings -- both public and closed-door -- in the Senate Intelligence Committee today, starting at 9:30 am.  Although Hayden is expected to face tough questions about the NSA domestic wiretapping program, the tone may be somewhat muted now that the Administration has briefed committee members on the program.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the hearings will begin with an opening statement from chair Pat Roberts, followed by opening remarks from Democrat Carl Levin, after which each panel member will have 20 minutes to question Hayden.  It's during the closed session that the committee will discuss classified matters with Hayden, who will be able to address concerns about the NSA programs in detail, Strickland says.

One notable absence from the hearing today: ranking member Jay Rockefeller (D), who is recovering from major back surgery.  Levin will unofficially fill Rockefeller's role, Strickland reports.  Rockefeller's office says he'll review transcripts from the closed session and submit any additional questions to Hayden as necessary.

A new House Ethics investigative subcommittee announced last night, which will look into allegations of improper conduct by Reps. Bob Ney (R) and William Jefferson (D), could be in response to recent polls showing Congress' job approval rating in the toilet.  It also reflects the number of scandals that have queued up while the committee was basically defunct, plagued for months by staffing issues and partisan disputes.  Ney is tangled up in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation; Jefferson is the center of an unrelated bribery scandal.  The committee also announced a preliminary investigation into the bribery scandal surrounding now-jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) due to continuing news reports that other members may be involved, NBC's Viq reports.  The committee is declining to investigate outgoing GOP Rep. Tom DeLay and made no mention yesterday of Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan, who recently had to give up his post as the committee's ranking member due to a federal probe into his finances.

Although these initial steps toward investigations are unusual in that the committee generally declines to interfere in matters already being probed by federal prosecutors, it's entirely possible that committee members have taken note of recent polls showing an alarmingly low opinion of Congress.  Both Ney and Jefferson maintain their innocence and are running for re-election; Jefferson indicated earlier this week that he plans to continue to serve even if indicted.

House Republicans got a $2.8 trillion budget late last night, prompting a flurry of statements claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility.  "Fiscal responsibility is not an option in this House of Representatives," read Speaker Dennis Hastert's.  The statements overlooked that the tax-cut extension Bush signed into law yesterday will basically be deficit-financed, and also overlook the likelihood that the House and Senate will not be able to reconcile their respective plans.  Republicans say the Bush tax cuts strengthen the economy and increase federal revenue.

And for the oh-eight inclined, the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws panel holds a 5:00 pm conference call on which members will discuss applications from states who want to hold one of the early presidential nominating contests the DNC is expected to add in between the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and shortly after New Hampshire.

The immigration debate
The AP, previewing Bush's stop in Yuma today, notes that the city "is the embodiment of the system that Bush frequently describes, where desperate people risk their lives for a chance to earn decent wages from U.S. employers hungry for their labor."  The local Border Patrol station, "which oversees 62 miles of the border," is "seeing unusual spikes, including 840 on a single day in March." – AP

Momentum for Bush's requested comprehensive bill continues to build in the Senate, which yesterday OK’d construction of a triple-layered 370-mile fence along the US-Mexico border and also approved certain curbs on a guest-worker program.  Still: "Prospects for legislation clearing Congress were clouded by a withering attack against President Bush by" Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, "the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year."  - AP

"Although the Senate appears almost certain to approve a bill that grants citizenship rights to illegal aliens, conservatives managed for a second day yesterday to edge the bill to the right," says the Washington Times of yesterday's votes.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who opposes granting citizenship to illegal immigrants, says any "compromise" might not cost the party the majority in the Senate, but could cost them one or two seats. – Des Moines Register

With Bush visiting Arizona today, USA Today looks at how immigration could play in the state's US Senate race, in which Democrat Jim Pederson is waging an uphill but potentially competitive campaign against incumbent Jon Kyl (R), who takes a tougher stance on immigration than Bush and colleague John McCain do.

California state officials remain disgruntled over Bush's proposal to use the National Guard.  "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was demanding answers... from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who briefed him Wednesday.  The governor had spent 45 minutes on the phone with Bush senior advisor Karl Rove on Monday about the plan.  But after both conversations, the governor complained about being left in the dark." – Los Angeles Times

The New York Times notes that the White House is turning to a “familiar Administration partner” in its effort to secure the border: military contractors.  “Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman… are among the companies that said they would submit bids within two weeks for a multibillion-dollar federal contract to build what the administration calls a ‘virtual fence’ along the nation's land borders.”

Security politics
During the Hayden confirmation hearings today, NBC's Strickland advises keeping an eye on Levin and Dianne Feinstein who, along with the absent Rockefeller, are the Senate Democrats with the most knowledge about the NSA programs.  Russ Feingold (D), who seems to be running for president and who has proposed that President Bush be censured for authorizing the NSA domestic wiretapping program, is also worth watching.  A staunch privacy rights advocate, he was the only senator to vote against the original authorization of the Patriot Act.  Ron Wyden has also been extremely critical of Hayden in the past week.

On the GOP side, Strickland says, watch Sens. Mike DeWine, Chuck Hagel, and Olympia Snowe.  All three have co-sponsored legislation that would grant the committee more oversight of NSA programs.  Hagel also is another possible presidential contender.  Saxby Chambliss has questioned Hayden's role as a military man taking over the civilian intel agency since the day Hayden was nominated; he had ties to fired CIA director Porter Goss, with whom he had previously served in the House.

Roll Call reports that "GOP leaders and the Bush administration have agreed to take a series of unusual steps aimed at allowing Hayden to maintain his rank as a four-star general while suspending Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s authority over Hayden as a military officer while he serves as CIA director."  Language is being included in the Pentagon authorization bill to formalize that demarcation.

USA Today, which broke the story of the NSA phone records database, previews the related questions Hayden is expected to face today.

This Baltimore Sun report might become fodder at today’s hearings: The NSA developed a pilot program in late 1990s “that would have enabled it to gather and analyze massive amounts of communications data without running afoul of privacy laws.   But after the Sept. 11 attacks [under Hayden], it shelved the project--not because it failed to work--but because of bureaucratic infighting and a sudden expansion in the agency's surveillance powers that was granted by the White House.” - Tribune

Pegged to Hayden's confirmation hearing, Americans United, the liberal group that has hit the Bush White House on Social Security and the Medicare prescription-drug plan, begins running a 30-second TV ad today on national cable (a $100,000 buy) whacking the White House again -- this time over the allegations that the NSA has compiled a database of Americans' phone records, something that Hayden may be asked about.  "Tell the President to go after the terrorists, not innocent Americans," the ad states.

Bob Novak writes that Speaker Hastert “engaged in a high-decibel rant last week” with Vice President Cheney over the firing of Porter Goss.  “That wrath reflects the feeling in the House Republican cloakroom that Goss, who gave up a safe congressional seat from Florida for a thankless cleanup mission at the CIA, is being made a scapegoat for the government's intelligence mess.  But Hastert's discontent goes beyond the CIA.  The GOP mood on Capitol Hill, particularly the House, is poisonous.”

The Los Angeles Times reports a rift between "Rep. Jane Harman, who has gained national prominence as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee," and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has told colleagues she plans to rotate Harman out of that slot and replace her with Rep. Alcee Hastings.  "Democratic leadership aides described the move as a routine rotation.  But other congressional officials attribute the anticipated assignment change to internal party politics, including concern among Democrats that Harman is too moderate and inclined to accommodate the Republican agenda."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
"With Republicans desperate to pass big-ticket legislative items to reverse their slide in the polls, the House and Senate have increasingly moved in opposite directions as the White House has played each chamber off the other to achieve its own goals," says Roll Call, which points out that it's Bush + House Republicans on the emergency supplemental, but Bush + Senate Republicans on immigration.

The AP says of the House budget: “Every Democrat who voted opposed the bill.  Twelve Republicans, split between moderates opposed to budget cuts and conservatives worried about national debt and deficits, went against GOP leaders and voted ‘nay.’”

"With the Memorial Day recess approaching, a wartime spending bill remains stalled in House-Senate negotiations.  Rancorous exchanges last night left little hope of resolving House-Senate differences over immigration policy prior to November.  Election year health and energy initiatives have both stumbled recently," says the Wall Street Journal, which also notes that the House "budget resolution implicitly rebukes much of what President Bush proposed in February."

Still, even though the House and Senate seem unlikely to come to an agreement on a budget, "the debate... gave Democrats and Republicans ample opportunity to illustrate the differences between their parties."  The vote also "came hours after Bush signed a deficit-financed $70 billion tax cut bill extending lower rates for investors and saving billions for families with above-average incomes threatened by the alternative minimum tax." – Washington Post

"Social conservatives say President Bush must work harder before next month's scheduled Senate vote to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman, and some even say the White House is sending all the wrong signals on the issue," the Washington Times reports.  "In recent weeks, Laura Bush has told Fox News that she doesn't think the issue should be used in campaigns, and Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary has been highlighting her father's past opposition to the amendment during a tour for her book."

It's the economy
The risk of touting the strong US economy, as Bush did yesterday in signing the tax-cut extension into law, is that the market could tank, as it did yesterday.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 214 points in its largest one-day drop in over three years -- and not long after Bush extolled the stock market as one of the economy's many indicators of strength.  Concerns about inflation and further interest rate hikes caused the drop.

Representatives of the Big Three automakers visit Congress today.  House Republicans meet with them at 11:00 am; Senate Democrats hold a photo op with them at 12:45 pm.

Ethics
The Los Angeles Times reports that the federal agents who raided former CIA executive director Dusty Foggo's home and office "apparently were looking for evidence about trips that he and his family took with the family of San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes and whether Foggo paid his share...  Wilkes and Foggo, friends since high school and roommates at San Diego State University, have denied any impropriety...  The searches escalated a congressional bribery scandal that has already landed former Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham in jail."

Republican operative Jim Tobin was sentenced yesterday to 10 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for his role in the 2002 GOP phone-jamming scheme which disrupted Democrats' get-out-the-vote calls in New Hampshire.  The RNC has paid Tobin's legal bills, and New Hampshire Democrats have been seeking to tie the scandal to the White House and national GOP officials.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is close to producing its report on Jack Abramoff's "bilking of his tribal clients."

The Miami Herald reports the Sen. Mel Martinez (R), who returned a $2,500 donation to Abramoff in January because he "wanted no contributions with 'even a hint of impropriety,'" is now refusing to return $250,000 raised at a fundraiser co-chaired by Abramoff himself, reports the Miami Herald.  "Martinez spokesman Ken Lundberg said the senator would keep the $250,000 because 'it has nothing to do with Jack Abramoff.'"

Disaster politics
Vice President Cheney will deliver the commencement address at LSU in Baton Rouge tomorrow.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced yesterday that he has received the endorsements of 39 mayors across the country, reports the Times-Picayune.  "To be fair, there are some heavy hitters in the list," but "it is not unreasonable to question what value Nagin's far-flung colleagues bring or to consider that the aggregate populations of those cities may not even top the pre-Katrina head-count of New Orleans."

Presidential contender and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is asking Bush to declare the state a "disaster area and send financial help immediately," after it was hit with major flooding, reports the Boston Globe.

The midterms
At the RNC gala last night to raise money for the midterms, Bush “left little doubt that the White House would return to the same themes it used over the past six years, portraying Democrats as weak on terrorism and committed to higher taxes and government spending,” the New York Times writes.  “As he did in 2002 and 2004, he repeatedly invoked the memory of the attacks of Sept. 11.”

As we've said before, the chess game of base-motivation also includes efforts to remove issues from the table that might inspire the other party's core voters.  The impeachment page appears to have been removed from Democratic Rep. John Conyers' website.  As we reported last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said there would be no impeachment hearings for President Bush on her watch as Speaker; Republicans were using the prospect of impeachment hearings to whip up their base.

In the Democratic primary for governor of California, state Treasurer Phil Angelides is trying to capitalize on state Controller Steve Westly's apparent breaking of a pledge not to air any negative ads.  "Just three weeks ago, [Westly] was riding high amid polls showing his emergence as the clear front-runner...  But now, even Westly's advisors concede that Angelides... has erased much, and perhaps all, of Westly's early edge."  Westly has spent $32.5 million of his own money on his campaign so far. – Los Angeles Times

The Sacramento Bee writes that Democrats believe California Rep. John Doolittle (R) is vulnerable, "largely because of his association with disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his friendship with Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor implicated in the bribery of former Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham.”

Four Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates -- all three Democrats and the independent -- will participate in their first live debate tonight.  "The Republican candidate, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, declined to take part," reports the Boston Globe.

The Washington Post rounds up signs of an anti-incumbent sentiment in the results of Tuesday's primaries, particularly in battleground Pennsylvania.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page noticed, as well: "If Republican leaders in Washington still think their break-the-bank spending won't cause trouble with voters in November, they'd better pay attention to what just happened in the Quaker State's elections."

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